Disclaimer: This story contains some graphic imagery.
In one fell swoop, the thief snatched my mother’s thin gold necklace and fled the scene, zig-zagging between cars before I could even muster a single word. My heart froze, I turned to her as she gazed down in sheer shock. The necklace was gone. On that dreary morning my mother had decided that I was old enough to accompany her to the central market. This was the same day that I would meet the infamous chicken lady.
Lima in the eighties was in constant flux and one needed to be alert the majority of the time. The propensity for crime and dissonance on the street was further heightened by sirens and barking stray dogs. The market epitomized all of this in one centralized location.
After a few rounds through the vendor corridors, we ended up at the chicken lady’s stall. This was the first time I had seen an animal being butchered, one of many lessons my mother set out to bestow upon me at a tender age, which would forever be etched in my mind. I was equally overwhelmed with sympathy and overtaken by a primal curiosity as the cycle of life unfolded right in front of me.
Fast forward twenty eight years where I find myself dodging bats through the pitch dark sacred monkey forest on my way to experience one the most intense moments in my life.
The forest was the shortest path available to central Ubud, so I woke up at four in the morning, grabbed my headlamp and made a b-line towards Ibu Oka where I would document the Balinese process of roasting a whole suckling pig.
The eponymously named Ibu Oka restaurant is the crown jewel for locals and food adventurers alike. It’s a family-run business that offers one thing and one thing only: the unrivaled Babi Guling sampler “spesial”, which is comprised of a combination of nasi (simple rice), sayur urab (mixed vegetables), daging (pork roll), gorengan (pork fritters), sosis (blood sausage) and kulit (pork skin).
Our first culinary pilgrimage in Bali took place at Ibu Oka, and while it is a bit tricky to get to, it was worth the trek.
Before the bill came, I asked the proprietor’s son, Agung Edi, if I could check out the roasting chambers and without hesitation he took me downstairs to their outdoor kitchen.
I inquired if it would be possible to come back and take part in the roasting process, he agreed and recommended that I make it back at 4:45 am the next morning, I humbly replied “of course”. The next morning rolled around and after crossing the monkey forest I finally made it to the main road that led to the restaurant.
It was as though the owner and restaurant patriarch, Agung Oka, was waiting for my arrival. He barely spoke English and carried an impactful presence, resembling a swarthy fixture in a Tarantino film, yet as with most Balinese people he was delightfully welcoming.
We sat down and without skipping a beat, he handed me an unfiltered cigarette and one of the sludgiest cups of coffee I’ve ever drank, both of which I accepted with no apprehension. This was going to be a good day.
I’ve lived a pretty itinerant life, but nothing could prepare me for the sight I was about to encounter. Once we finished our coffee, a Balinese staple known simply as ‘Bali kopi’, we headed downstairs where he introduced me to the cooks.
One of the men handed me a razor-sharp knife as another held down the pig. Even though I have put animals down in the past (for the sole purpose of providing a food source) I just couldn’t bring myself to do it on that day.
Exceptional food takes patience, courage and creativity, and it takes incredible determination to wake up that early to do it all over again, and like clockwork these men do it every single day. They stand in front of the roaring flames hand-cranking the roaster while tending to the beast to feed the ever praising hoards of customers revolving through their doors.
The pigs are lathered with coconut water and basted with home-made coconut oil before going on the fire, fueled by coconut shells and coffee plant wood — according to Anung, the best type of wood for suckling pig.
Whole hogs are stuffed with a paste made from hot chilies, aromatics and roots including fresh galangal, turmeric, and ginger, then roasted on a hand-turned spit over blazing hard wood.
The end result is Babi Guling, the most crispy-skinned, fragrant, and succulent roast pork I’ve ever savoured.
The roast takes just over five hours for a whole pig so after the first hour I headed over to Ubud’s central market and walked around town before coming back to the restaurant towards the end to once again taste the fruit of their labor.
Every day, farmers, vendors, and regular folk congregate at the morning market.
It is vibrant, colorful, and teeming with life adding to the cacophony that resonates with each sun rise.
When I signed up for Ibu Oka I got more than I bargained for, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.